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Brave New Whirl 

Guitarist Shan Kenner sees the future of music -- in a live jazz/ electronica hybrid

Wednesday, May 9 2001
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It's a chilly, inhospitable Monday night in North Beach. Tourists, yuppies, and transfixed listeners dot the plush couches and faux-fancy Holstein chairs of the Black Cat's Blue Bar lounge. On the cramped stage an imposing, shaven-headed guitarist leads his band into a frenetic rendition of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." As the six-stringer unleashes a torrent of arrowlike notes, the band swings furiously behind him, breaking only for a spontaneous foray into a few bars of "House of the Rising Sun." The acidic wall of sound is too much for some: One particularly inebriated patron in a shirt and tie tilts his head back in agony and yells, "Shut up! Shut up!" Soon after, he loses his balance and pitches backward, sprawling on the carpeted floor as the band careens into another maddening chorus.

And then, as quickly as it began, the sonic assault recedes. The guitarist plucks billowy chords and the rhythm section raps out creeping, syncopated rhythms. As listeners bop to drummer Ches Smith's beats and thwacks, the tension in the room dissipates. The drunken yuppie fumbles on the carpet for his lost wallet, and the guitarist, Shan Kenner, looks up from his perch, smiling like a DJ after a particularly smooth segue.

Except, of course, for one crucial difference: The previous 10 minutes of musical mayhem came directly and spontaneously from Kenner's band Lithium, which tonight includes Smith on drums, Andy Woodhouse on bass, and Mitch Marcus on tenor sax and Rhodes keyboard. No turntables, no records, no laptops: Kenner and his band navigate the tempestuous waters between jazz and electronic music with live instruments. And people from all walks of music are taking notice.

Producer Jonah Sharpe -- whose groundbreaking act Spacetime Continuum is widely acclaimed in electronic music circles, and who is recording material with Lithium under the moniker Future Life -- says the group is on the forefront of the crossover between live and electronic music. "None of those guys stick to the rules," he says about Kenner and Lithium. "And for a jazz player to go beyond what they know, it's quite rare. But [Kenner's] not afraid to go boldly into different things."

Kenner's appeal to the electronic music crowd is certainly rare for a musician with a jazz background. But it's undeniable: For the past year, he held a weekly gig at 26 Mix, a Mission club that was previously DJ-only. When the renowned house music producers JJ and Julius Papp wanted guitar for a remake of Stevie Wonder's "All I Do," they sought out Kenner.

Kenner has fans in the jazz world as well. Bishop Norman Williams, an elder statesman of the local scene who played alto sax alongside such legends as Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Stitt, and Jack McDuff, calls Kenner a "hell of a guitar player." Bishop (as he's called) met the guitarist 2 1/2 years ago when Kenner sat in at a gig. "I thought he was marvelous, fantastic," recalls Bishop. The two now play regularly in each other's bands, and Bishop even paid Kenner the ultimate musician's tribute, penning a tune for him called "Mr. Guitarist."

But the praise for Kenner was not always this universal.

After he moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles three years ago, Kenner met local jazz musicians in the usual manner -- by playing standards at pickup gigs. "I guess the best way to get used to each other is to play these typical tunes we all know," he remembers. "So we'd say, "OK, we all know "Autumn Leaves," [so] let's see what we can do over it.'" But Kenner's playing -- often blindingly fast, sometimes seemingly out of control, and always different from the usual jazz fare -- won him few friends. Many local jazz musicians thought he played too fast or didn't know what he was doing. Some grumbled that he didn't play over the chord changes as much as he ignored them.

Not surprisingly, Kenner speaks of the local scene with less than reverential tones. "There is no jazz scene here. The jazz scene here is service industry; it's cats making rent," he declares vehemently. "It was difficult to find people that wanted to introduce something new into the scene. It was very elitist, very closed." When Kenner tried to use standards as a springboard into the unknown, other players balked. "Every music has different elements," he explains, "and one of those elements is paying homage to the masters that you dug. But how are they going to dig hearing you do exactly what they did? How can Duke Ellington be stoked hearing you play "Take the A Train' the same way he played it? It would be very offensive, I think." But for many musicians Kenner's explorations were random displays of sonic flashiness rather than reverential reworkings -- and some said they weren't jazz at all.

But those critical barbs don't stick anymore. Since Kenner formed Lithium -- which now includes Smith, bassist John Wilson, and occasional hornmen Bishop, Marcus, and David Slusser -- he isn't even claiming to play jazz. What Lithium does in its weekly sonic excursions is decidedly free-form, mixing furiously paced drum 'n' bass rhythms, slower downtempo grooves, house beats flavored with Hindustani melodies, jazz harmonies and improvisation, and anything else the group thinks up. It's an experimental sound -- made more so because it's mostly improvised. Still, the group has developed a devoted following. "I'm surprised at how much people are into free improv," says Smith. "You don't expect people to like it, but I really do notice a reaction."

It's a reaction spurred by Lithium's impressive forays into live drum 'n' bass, in which the group dispenses with the notion of DJs toiling over turntables. On one recent Monday at the Blue Bar, producer Sharpe joined the band, layering live samples, sound effects, and drum loops over Smith's breakneck beats and Kenner's ambient chordal harmonies. The purely improvised creations made many pre-programmed drum 'n' bass tracks sound hopelessly stale by comparison.

For his part, Kenner sees the new live electronica style as a "renaissance for jazz musicians." "I think it's the vibe that's created between the uptempo beats and the slow bass, and putting jazz harmonies over that," he says. "It's not like it's a totally new music or anything, but it's a new outlet for jazz musicians."

Sharpe, who places Lithium within a new wave of electro/instrumental hybrids emerging in London and New York, says the band stands apart because of its reliance on live instrumentation. "They're indicative of how this whole crossover thing is occurring, but the thing is they're doing it live. A lot of the gigs they're doing are traditional jazz gigs, and most people just don't do this sort of thing in a jazz club," he says. "It's gone beyond drum 'n' bass; they're inventing new rhythms."

That this sound is what a lot of young listeners want to hear is a happy coincidence. "You have an audience that is into the music and musicians who are able to do their stuff, so everyone is satisfied and no one is compromised," Kenner says.

"I think the city has a lot of new energy now, a lot of openness," he says. "I think when I first moved here in '98 it was more the end of something that had been going on for six or seven years, but now there's a new thrust, and people are coming out to see that. When something is new, people can feel it."

About The Author

Ezra Gale

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